Duluth physical rehabilitation device lifts the burden

At LightSpeed Lift headquarters, Malcolm Macaulay demonstrates how the device is worn.


When our bodies don’t move the same as they used to, when our strength is low, the world can feel unstable and insecure. For those who have suffered an injury or accident, fear of moving into the world can be a real obstacle to recovery. Getting past the mental block of fear can be one of the first inroads for solid recovery.

That’s where a Duluth physical therapist and his invention can help. Malcolm Macaulay and his LightSpeed Lift device are transforming the rehabilitation possibilities – and expanding the horizon for runners – on a national scale. And people are seeing results. The Duluth-based company saw record growth last year, with more initiatives planned in 2020. 

“With an average annual sale of 10,” said Bud Trnka, LightSpeed marketing director. “2019 was significant because we put 30 LightSpeeds in the market in that year alone. So far in 2020, we’re on track to double or even triple the figure. 

The intuitive, accessible LightSpeed Lift may soon be commonplace among physical therapists and elite runners.

The basic concept is simple: Lifting weight off a person and providing support in just the right places can decrease impact forces and improve physical rehabilitation and performance for athletes. The LightSpeed Lift is a patented body weight support device that lifts 20 to 40 pounds off a person walking or running on a treadmill, allowing greater mobility, building muscle memory and strength, and building confidence.

The idea of body weight support in physical rehabilitation gained momentum in the early 1990s, when physical therapists noted that rehabilitation could be improved in some cases by helping support people’s body weight. As a physical therapist in Duluth, Macaulay saw the challenges to people who were too weak to stand and bear their full weight. 

“Gravity can cause too much pain by compressing the joints,” he explains. “If you supported someone and could stand them up, the rehabilitation would be improved.”

At the time, Macaulay was working with a runner with a severe neck injury who needed to get back to running, for physical and mental reasons. 

“I rigged a system with a boat winch,” Macaulay recalls. “With a beam over a treadmill and a belt on him, I lifted him up with a fish scale in the middle of it.”

The contraption worked. “He said, ‘I can run!’ ” 

It was the first “LightSpeed smile,” that Macaulay would come to see much more of in the coming years.

Macaulay knew this same concept could work for others, but as an independent physical therapist, he could not afford the few systems available at that time. They were outrageously expensive, he recalls, and not very effective. 

“I kept waiting for someone else to come up with a system,” he says, describing how he would search trade shows for the device he had rigged in his office. And then one day he and his friend Verne Johnson had what Macaulay calls “a paradigm shift” and came up with the clear idea for the device. A metal frame is built around the treadmill. An individual wears either a belt or shorts, which attach to bungee cords clipped to the frame, acting as a harness to suspend the person. The frame height is adjustable, allowing you to control how much weight is supported, anywhere from 15-40 pounds. The safety features of the device ensure that if the individual suffers muscle fatigue, they won’t completely fall. It also helps people move past the mental blocks in rehabilitation. 

“People who are injured are fearful,” Macaulay says. They wonder, ‘Am I ever going to get back to walking, to running? Will I be able to stand up again? That’s a real physical, visceral fear. Somehow, being supported and being lifted up removes a lot of that fear.’”

Macaulay has seen the device aid people after severe brain injury, who have strength but feel unstable in the world. Knowing the device is supporting them helps them move through the fear, building their confidence in their abilities to walk and balance.

Physical therapists from The College of St. Scholastica concluded that LightSpeed Lift had both statistically and clinically significant effects for individuals. It decreased impact forces, helped people gradually return to weight bearing activity after injury, and decreased the risk of repetitive stress injuries associated with endurance training.

For athletes, the device offers a training option that not only decreases the risk of repetitive stress injuries, but enables speed gains. It can work more effectively than running in a pool or on an elliptical device, since it still offers the benefits of impact: strengthening ligaments, tendons and muscles for running. As an added bonus, it allows runners to up their speed (a 9-minute mile pace on pavement could be a 6 or 7-minute mile on the device). This builds fast-twitch muscle fibers and stimulates neuromuscular pathways for improved central nervous system communication. While it’s possible to achieve similar results training on a track, the LightSpeed Lift reduces the risk of repetitive stress injuries and reduces muscle soreness, as lesser impact doesn’t break down the tissue as much.

Tiffany Kari, an avid triathlete and health promotion coordinator with St. Louis County, originally tried the device five years ago for speed gains while training for her first Boston Marathon. On the LightSpeed, Tiffany could run at a pace up to two minutes faster per mile than her road pace. She ran twice a week on it over a three-month period, increasing her average pace. “The neat thing with LightSpeed is that you can get those legs turning over a lot faster than you can on the road, for a longer period of time. The body starts to adapt and adjust, and develops muscle memory.” 

Tiffany successfully completed the Boston Marathon, and at every race that year – from a 10K to an Olympic distance triathlon to a Half Iron Man – she set personal records (PRs) for her running time. She finds the consistency of using it to be key. 

“If someone gets on it one time, or even three times, I doubt they’re going to say, oh look! I can see I’m faster! You need at least six weeks, 1-2 times per week, to see a change.”

Tiffany’s not alone in the performance strides she’s seeing from using the device.  Prominent athletes in track, road running and triathlons, including Jordan Hasay, Alexi Pappas, Brian Reynolds and Angela Naeth, are now using LightSpeed Lift to improve their performances. The device is also used in prominent athletic and rehabilitation companies nationwide. In 2020, three LightSpeed Lift systems will be available at the newly renovated Hayward Field, the host of the 2020 US Olympic track and field trials.  

Current research projects are underway to quantify results. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse, and Wesleyan University of Indiana are conducting trials to quantify the metabolic and biomechanical effects of LightSpeed on running and walking. More research projects will begin in 2020. 

“Because it looks simple – people have tended to minimize it,” Macaulay says. “We’ve had one university project and we have two going on right now to legitimize it from a sales and business perspective.” 

Because it’s designed as a piece of dynamic equipment, it fits into an array of areas, including homes and smaller physical therapy clinics. One-third of the company’s sales go into home gyms, one-third go to rehabilitation clinics, and one-third in bigger gyms or universities. 

“The big rehab centers can afford the expensive systems that are out there, but only a small percentage of the population need that,” says Macaulay. “The majority of people who can benefit don’t need that much support. We wanted to create something for the average clinician like myself. It doesn’t take a large footprint in the clinic, doesn’t require a lot of maintenance and space.”

Duluth-area designers and manufacturers have played a large role in making LightSpeed a reality. 

“I’m the guy who writes it on a napkin,” Macaulay laughs. “A whole variety of people who have helped it become a reality.” 

He explains how the basic concept has remained the same, but now looks much different. “The old stuff looks like a Model A compared to the new cars,” he jokes. One of the first LightSpeeds was placed in the Duluth downtown YMCA in 2012, and is still fully functional. Members can hop on with the assistance of the personal trainer on duty. (When the former Duluth Y director moved to the Cincinnati, Ohio, YMCAs, he ordered LightSpeed Lifts for them as well.)

The devices are made locally. Steel is manufactured and welded in Hermantown, then brought to a powder coating shop in Superior. A large part of the lift system is hand sewn in Duluth’s Lincoln Park neighborhood, and the hand sewn shorts are made in the Twin Cities. 

“The local manufacturers allow us to have close, intimate, fast conversations with the people who help us bring this out to the market,” Trnka said.

One of the biggest business challenges has been building brand awareness. There are so many applications for the device, it’s been difficult to know where to concentrate the marketing. Last year, Trnka joined the company as marketing director, helping Macaulay’s efforts to communicate with a growing market.

The rehabilitation market was Macaulay’s first area of focus. At the physical therapy trade shows, people now seek them out. In 2019 and continuing into 2020, fitness centers will be an area of concentrated outreach, as well as athletic training, taking advantage of the 2020 Olympics season and the increased attention toward running and track and field.

Social media has begun to play an important role. 

“LightSpeed Lift is absolutely experiential,” says Trnka. “It’s also visually captivating. You need to stop and interact for a bit.” Instagram has been their number No. 1 channel. “It’s surprising how well that’s worked for us,” says Trnka. Macaulay and Trnka see social media and sites like You Tube as important tools to grow and support their user population, as athletes and physical therapists seek information on how to use the device for themselves and for their clients.

For Macaulay and Trnka, the reward is not seeing business growth, but knowing people’s lives are better. “It’s an emotional product,” says Trnka. “That LightSpeed smile is real – not only for people in it, but people who are witnessing it. When there’s that breakthrough, how can you not be moved?”

It all comes back to Macaulay’s original vision and overarching goal to improve motion. “The world’s a better place when people are healthy and moving more.”